King Country puts faith in Heartland debutant flanker against Whanganui

By Jared Smith

Only in the era of Covid would Steelform Whanganui be fronting up against the recent All Blacks captain for a must-win Bunnings Heartland Championship game.

Saturday’s match at Owen Delany Park already had enough local spice for the broth – the first time in over a decade Whanganui will meet hosts King Country at their most eastern home ground of Taupo, while for many of the 2021 squad it is the chance for payback after last year’s disappointing 16-11 loss in Taumarunui.

But all of that has been overshadowed by the announcement that appearing on the side of the King Country scrum will be 74-test flanker and previously injured All Blacks skipper Sam Cane.

Sidelined since Super Rugby Aotearoa in March with a pectoral muscle tear, Cane has recovered and was among the four New Zealand-based players named to fly out next Thursday to join the current All Blacks squad on their five-test northern tour.

With the 29-year-old’s home union Bay of Plenty on a bye this weekend due to their scheduled Bunnings NPC opponent Counties Manukau still in Level 3 lockdown, Cane and his national coach Ian Foster were desperate to find him any sort of gametime, and so looked to the Heartland squads within the Chiefs franchise.

“We’ll see how the bureaucratic cogs chug their way through that one,” Foster said on Monday.

The “cogs” were simply a handful of phone calls – Bay of Plenty manager Wayne Brill ringing King Country coach Craig Jeffries, who in turn checked with his union’s general manager Kurt McQuilkin, who likely just about fell off his chair.

“He [Jeffries] asked me what were my thoughts? And I said, ‘Well, I don’t have to think too much about it, I’d get onto him, and nail it,” McQuilkin told Stuff.

After losses to Mid Canterbury (53-25), West Coast (34-17) and South Canterbury (72-0) and unable to access their previous arranged Auckland-based imports, the bottom-table side was not about to look a gift horse in the mouth to bring in the ultimate ringer for one game.

“I’m sure they’ll grow an arm and a leg,” said Whanganui coach Jason Caskey about how the King Country players are feeling about their new team mate.

To be fair, between Ranfurly Shield challenges, preseason fixtures against NPC Development sides, and even in Heartland, Whanganui have experience playing men who have, or one-day would, pull on the ‘Black Jumper’.

“Generally if you’re playing against an All Black, it’s an ex-All Black, probably a bit past their prime,” said Caskey.

“There’s not a lot of chances to play the current, if he wasn’t injured, All Blacks captain.

“Not exactly ideal for us, but still a good challenge for the players.

“Knowing Jamie [Hughes – openside flanker], he’ll be over-excited to pit himself against somebody of his calibre.”

Focusing on the factors that he can control, as the race for the Top 2 continues to heat up, Caskey’s primary concern this week was tightening up the ruck-and-maul, after last weekend’s whopping 15 penalties against Wairarapa Bush.

However, Caskey put only about six of those down to genuinely lazy efforts which didn’t need to be conceded, some of the others a little harsh as the visitors also had plenty of players off their feet and lying on the ball.

“The whole breakdown was a bit of a lottery last week. No-one had any idea.

“As long as you’re consistent, players know. If you ref hard…they know to adapt to it.

“[Last weekend] the whistle goes, you don’t know what side it’s going for.”

If Whanganui’s pack can get their breakdown timing right, then backs like midfielder Kameli Kuruyabaki can get some meaningful possession, while winger Peceli Malanicagi touched the ball maybe twice in an hour last Saturday.

Caskey doesn’t want his players to feel if they get a shot at securing possession that they shouldn’t go for it in fear of getting the wrong side of a 50-50 call.

“We’ve got to make sure we do better, our discipline let us down a bit. Just try to take it out of [the ref’s] court.”

There will be a tangible reward if they do, in the return of the Sir Colin Meads Memorial Trophy, which they surrendered for the first time in 2020 after three successful defences.

“We played really poorly last year, lost the Pinetree Log, so there’s no shortage of motivation,” said Caskey.

All of last weekend’s squad are available, with lock PT Hay-Horton still not recovered from his AC joint injury, while fullback Te Rangatira Waitokia is a couple of weeks away with his fractured jaw.

Saturday’s game will now be broadcast live on Sky Sport 2, kickoff 2.30pm.

Steelform Whanganui the inaugural winners of the “PineTree Log” in 2017